Prisoners Assistance Nepal
First Impressions: Indira Ranamagar
by Linda Murray
I shall never forget my first meeting with Indira Ranamagar: Director of the Prisoners’ Assistance Children’s Home [PA Nepal], tireless campaigner for prisoners’ rights and welfare and human dynamo! She swept into the room, where I had just been introduced to the children I would be working with for the next three months, like a tornado! I had been very impressed by the sight of thirty children, quietly sitting cross-legged round the room, getting on with their homework under the supervision of a calm, pretty twenty-year old – Shanti Miss – when Indira rushed in, apologising for not having been there to greet me. Introductions over, the children clustered round her and it was immediately clear that they had a close, warm relationship with Amma [mother], as they called her, belying the formidable list of rules pinned on the wall – “Rise at 5a.m, physical exercise till 6a.m, meditation until 6.30” etc!
Fun with books in the library at the
Prisoners Assistance Children’s Home
Never one to waste a moment, Indira asked me to start work the next day. My job was to supervise the children after school, lead activities and assist Shanti Miss with the children’s homework time. She explained that Shanti was a trainee so that, as an experienced teacher, I would be expected to contribute to her training. In fact, it was not long before I realised that, if anything, the roles were reversed and I had much to learn from her!
There was much to learn and admire all round. Knowing that these children all had one or both parents in gaol, that many had themselves been rescued from prison where they had been forced to live with their mothers, that some had witnessed the crimes that had led to their parent’s incarceration [in at least one case, murder], I had expected a tough job ahead. I had had a few pupils back home, in care because their parents were in prison. In all these cases, there had been a full back-up team of social and psychiatric workers – nevertheless, the children concerned were disturbed and were experiencing significant behavioural and educational problems. I was surprised – and impressed – as the weeks went by, therefore, to find these children so wellbehaved, cooperative and eager to learn. Almost all of them were doing well at school, were proud of their uniforms and LOVED doing their homework! They were equally amenable, too, when it came to doing their chores, helping the younger ones etc. I began to think that, far from having anything to teach Indira and Shanti about kids, I and my colleagues at home needed a course from them!
Nevertheless, I could make some contributions. Although, the Home was, by Nepalese standards, more than adequate in terms of accommodation, it was rather bare. There were few books, games and craft materials. With donations from back home, some of them from pupils at my own school, I tried to rectify this. It was not easy to find suitable materials in Kathmandu but eventually I managed to assemble a collection of paints, crayons, paper and glue and to commission a carpenter to build some outdoor play equipment.
Indira was very enthusiastic about the pictures and decorations that the children made to adorn the walls of their day room and, as for the kids themselves, they adored craft sessions! They were very dexterous and creative and were soon showing me how to make traditional folded paper creatures and dolls out of scraps of fabric – all they had lacked was the wherewithal.
One of my tasks was to accompany some of the children as they visited their parents in Kathmandu Female Gaol at weekends. A taxi would be ordered and Shanti, half a dozen kids and myself would squeeze into the four-seater car! I had been anxious before my first trip but, in fact, it proved to be quite a happy occasion. We assembled in a courtyard outside the prison and the mothers were sent out to join us. They had sweets and soft drinks – they earned a little money each day and there was a shop selling such things – for their children and there was something of a party atmosphere. One or two of the women who spoke a little English spoke to me of the gratitude that they felt for the fact that not only were their children being well cared for but were also getting the chance to go to school. There were, naturally, a few tears when it was time to leave but it was obvious that both mothers and children had really appreciated the chance to spend time together – something that Indira thought very important and had campaigned for.
Indira considers that education for the children in her charge is paramount and ensures that they all go to school – an opportunity that, sadly, is not open to every Nepalese child. School fees, uniforms and books constitute a big part of her budget but she understands how important it is that her charges are equipped for work and a life outside the Home when they are older. For me, as a teacher, it was heartening to see how proud the children were to be going to school – even the very young ones took it all very seriously and wore their uniforms with pride. Homework was undertaken very willingly and when – as happened pretty regularly – there was a power cut, they would, unperturbed, cluster round a couple of candles in the middle of the floor and carry on regardless.
A cause for concern, however, were the very young children who were living inside prison – the under-threes, who were in many cases still being breast-fed, were considered too young to be separated from their mothers but there was very little in the way of facilities for them. Towards the end of my time at PA Nepal, my sister, Gwenda and two colleagues, Pam and Cath, came out to join me, bringing lots of books and educational and craft materials, and Indira saw the opportunity to create a small kindergarten in the gaol. Thanks to her good relationship with the Prison Governor she was able to get permission for us to enter the prison – something normally strictly forbidden to foreigners – to set up a modest facility. It was a great success – the mothers were delighted and really relished the chance to get stuck into paper, glue and paints and to try to ‘beautify’ their rather grim environment. I shall never forget the sight, when we returned on the second day, of a huge multi-coloured banner over the door bearing the legend ‘Welcome to Gaol’!
Thanks to Gwenda, Pam and Cath, another of Indira’s plans was also able to come to fruition in the shape of a small library within the Home. They had brought a good selection of picture books with them and with the help of donations from family and friends they were able to buy books in Nepalese as well as bookshelves and other equipment. The children loved their little library and it was – and still is – wonderful to see them using it to read for pleasure or as a source of reference books for homework.
When the time came for me to leave Kathmandu, I was very sad – it had been a fantastic experience to work with such wonderful kids and with someone as inspirational as Indira. Happily, though, that has not been the end of my link with PA Nepal as Gwenda, Cath, Pam, along with two other friends Sandra, and Christine have continued with their support and fund-raising in the form of the Nepalese Children’s Trust and I am now proud to be one of the trustees. More recently we have welcomed two more trustees to the team, both living in Lincolnshire.